September 2019


All Tomorrow’s Parties

By Martin McKenzie-Murray
Image of Earthcore, 2005

Photograph by Scott Sandars

The life and death of Spiro Boursinos, impresario of rave culture’s pioneering event Earthcore

On his last night alive, Spiro Boursinos went hard. He knew no other way. Forty-five years old, few thought he would ever change. There had been plenty of opportunities for humility, sobriety, contrition. He let them pass. If anything, it was getting worse. The booze and coke; the paranoia and aggression.

On his last night alive, the music promoter was living with his mother. He owned nothing, was circled by creditors, had even sold the name of his festival to some kid. His friends and family said this was proof of his noble indifference to money – he lived for nothing but staging parties and making people happy.

On his last night alive, Boursinos could almost touch the 25th anniversary of his event – the dance party Earthcore, the original bush rave. He loved saying that. Loved spinning myths about his originality and influence, the wild maestro of doof. The event was just weeks away. At least, it was advertised as such. But its notoriety had made securing a venue difficult and a location was yet to be announced.

Yet on his last night alive, his family said he was out celebrating just that: a confirmed venue. Boursinos was at the Antique Bar, in Melbourne’s inner south. He drank for hours. First with friends, then alone. He was loud, obnoxious, insensible. He abused patrons. Then he smashed a bottle and threatened to slash them. As bar staff called police, patrons tackled him to the floor. They pinned him there until police arrived, just after 2am. It was Saturday, October 20, 2018.

For a long time, Spiro Boursinos lived like a Scorsese character: ambitiously and destructively lawless. He was one of those men whose death is remarked upon in newspapers with the adjectives “colourful” and “polarising”, insipid words that can only hint at a legacy of unusual disorder. Even his friends felt compelled to qualify his virtues to reporters.

Still, there were effusive tributes. “He created a subculture in Australia that turned into one of the biggest alternative community followings that I think Australia’s got within the dance scene,” his old colleague and friend Gary “Binaural” Neal told The Age. “I mean, it created dance, it created fashion … it became a lifestyle for many, many people. Without Spiro, we wouldn’t have that.”

Dance-party collective Melbourne Raves offered its praise:

Larrikin, misfit, cultural innovator, marketing genius. Love him or hate him, Spiro Boursine [the spelling of his name varied] shaped the landscape for outdoor electronic music festivals, spurring a national pastime of extended dirty weekends … and in the process making extreme outdoor dance-floor escapism into a global phenomenon … Earthcore events weren’t just good parties, for the revellers and crews involved, they were life changing. Hippie level ascension to the max.

A long-term DJ friend of Boursinos’s speaks of the other side of the movement: “Sure, you’ve got hippies and peace and love and all this shit, but it’s run by drug dealers. [It’s] the most controversial, back-stabbing piece of shit scene you’ll ever find. It’s a business, like any other. The whole peace, love and all that sort of shit – it’s Santa Claus.”

This is the story of an ascension, followed by a long and bizarre decline. So luridly shambolic was Boursinos’s life that those who knew him warned me that his story would be hard to tell. They were right. There were too many lies and legends. Too many people ashamed, suspicious or fearful to speak. Then there were those who had made peace with the madness, boxed it up and refused to open it. And across all of this fell the shadow of organised crime.

In 1992, Spiro Boursinos flew to Britain to experience its rave culture. Or at least he said he did. Boursinos said a lot of things. Old mates of his tell me it never happened. Let’s just say that one can see why he wanted it known that he was partying in London back then: a fabled time and place for the rave, it’s a good place to steal some mythos. “I took the warehouse rave scene from the UK and incorporated it with the Australian bushland as a backdrop,” he told Vice in 2015.

The next year, aged 21, he staged his first Earthcore event – a small, cheap and unauthorised dance party on Mount Tanglefoot, in Victoria’s Toolangi State Forest. He did so with the help of Pip Darvall, a geology student he’d met at a Melbourne rave – a man more gifted with logistics than himself. A few hundred people came, and before their priestly DJs they tripped in the forest.

Having got a taste for bush raves, Boursinos and Darvall got busy. Made flyers and posters. Arranged DJs. At warehouse raves in the city, Boursinos spread the word like only he could – with insistent, coercive excitement. By 1994, the call was issued to fellow freaks and psychic cosmonauts: Abandon the city! Shed your suits! Come party in the bush!

And the pilgrims came. Slowly at first, then in a rush. They came in convoys of old cars and caravans; they transformed their ute trays into lounge rooms. They came with punk’s DIY ethic, and built giant sculptures from wire and spent televisions. They made campsites that smelt of weed and incense. They danced for days to psy-trance – intolerable to my ear, but blissfully incantatory to the mind properly bent to it. They swallowed LSD and bathed in mud and touched the face of God. They created a joyous spectacle, a carnival, an escape. By the late ’90s Earthcore was hosting up to 15,000 people.

Unlike the fabled British parties, these ones were legal. They required permits, and Darvall was the man to get them. “The logistics of putting something like this on were very challenging,” he says. “One of our particular successes was that once we got large, the events were legal, had all the appropriate permits, insurances and so on, so we couldn’t be shut down. As a result I became a backyard expert in Victorian planning law. The regulations are … onerous, yes. But also sensible.”

Boursinos, Darvall says, had different talents. “He was ferocious at marketing, always pushing and pushing and pushing. And a lot of our success was due to that relentless marketing. We were regularly on page three of [Melbourne street press] Beat and InPress – unheard of for a company that spent the amount on advertising we did. It was very little. Even in our heyday we spent very little.”

As the punters arrived in their thousands, so too came the journalists, politicians, cultural theorists and drug dealers. To some, the new arrivals were symptoms of rot. Parasites attaching themselves to a dying host. The authentic doof – a term coined for the repetitive electronic beats of the music, and then used to describe the events themselves – should not have a long life expectancy, they said. They should be cheap, spontaneous, illegal – aloof from the realm of capital. Was Earthcore even a doof if it required the state’s permission?

Darvall was sympathetic to the hippie elements, he says, the tender outlaws harmonising with primal wisdoms long forsaken by modernity. In a 2000 paper published in the Journal of Contemporary Religion, Australian anthropologist Des Tramacchi wrote: “The location of doofs in an ecological environment promotes a sense of linking the doof community to the landscape and allows the occurrence of spontaneous mystical bonds with nature.”

Another Australian academic, Susan Luckman, was similarly mindful of the parties’ recondite possibilities. In a 2003 paper called “Going Bush and Finding One’s Tribe”, she wrote: “Psy-trance-inspired doof has furnished Australia’s alternative party people with the vehicle par excellence by which to realise the dream of PLUR (the early rave motto which stands for: Peace, Love, Unity and Respect), and community.”

Luckman’s paper also gathered some descriptions that fellow cultural theorists had used in the ’90s to describe the bush doof phenomenon: the “gestalt” and “oceanic” feelings, the ideal of an “original, primordial, timeless land of perfect and total joy; a pre-sexual age of innocence”.

If an Olympics for hyperbole were held, middle-class ravers and their cheering ethnographers would be highly competitive. And in Australia they were principally middle class, unlike their English forebears in the acid house scene, who found temporal escape from Thatcherite Britain in the unauthorised transformations of its industrial shells – and their own neurochemistry.

In 2000, the BBC sent a reporter to Earthcore. He found, with the genial faith of the travel writer, that “Easter means 3000 people follow the transcendental trail into the Australian bush in search of a tribal gathering.” Three years later, Victorian MPs made their own excursion to Earthcore. Members of the Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee, they spent a day – and night – at the bush doof as part of their inquiry into amphetamine and “party drug” use in the state. In their long and detailed report, the committee wrote:

Earthcore to some observers gives the appearance of being a mixture of carnivale, dance party, music festival, ‘agricultural show’ and ‘love in’. There are also a diversity of stalls and booths on site. These range from vegetarian cafes, coffee stalls where the coffee beans were hand ground by the purchaser pedalling a bicycle, stalls set up by Greenpeace and the UNHCR, to ‘shops’ selling colourful and exotic clothing, glow sticks and other ‘raving’ paraphernalia …

For all the fair-like atmosphere, these ‘sideshows’, while enjoyable, are very much secondary to the main attraction. According to the ‘ravers’, it is when the sun sets that the real fun and the raison d’etre of the festival begins – the dancing, the rave … Many of the observations about the role of the DJ as priest, shaman or guru were being realised on this hot dusty night. The atmosphere created at Earthcore, according to those in attendance, very much paralleled the ecstasies, altered states or trance-like states described in the academic literature.

If some punters were irritatingly pious, many also had the time of their life. Much of Earthcore legend is scandalous, but there were better moments: Aphex Twin, a confounding but critically adored musician, DJ’d in ’96 with the ingenious use of a blender. The Orb and Perry Farrell followed. “If you look at some of the people who played Earthcore, they’re some of the top people in the world,” one punter told me. “I think that’s why the mythologising of Spiro is so great, because he pulled off these amazing spectacles.” Lightning struck the main stage in 2004, but the show went on. In 2015, a great spiral of dust and convective heat moved across the festival’s paddocks, attracting stoned punters into its column as quickly as it attracted a nickname: Doofnado.

The parliamentary committee thought the logistics of these spectacles were “staggering”, and no doubt they were. Much of the respect for Boursinos derived from his crew’s acquittal of them – at least in the early days, before stories of inadequate toilets and fitful water supplies became common. Darvall told The Age in 2000 that they were creating a parallel universe. “We liken our events to creating a small city in the middle of nowhere, with all necessary services provided,” he said. “A normal city put through a blender.”

Spiro Boursinos wasn’t terribly political or spiritual, but he was happy to exploit others’ beliefs. In an interview with Susan Luckman, around the time that the Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee was on its fact-finding mission, Boursinos was comically unconvincing about the “philosophy” of his event: “[There’s a] tribal element in the sense of it’s obviously back out in nature … So obviously there’s tribal roots to nature, so therefore there’s a tribal element.”

He would mostly abandon the pretence. Years later, he told documentary maker Ryan McCurdy (for a still unreleased film): “We’re not a spiritual organisation. We’re not an organisation that’s saving the whales or, you know, the Stolen Generation, or whatever. We’re not that … There’s no ethos. No driving reasoning for it. Just go there on the weekend, unleash and regret it later – you know?”

Of course Boursinos wasn’t saving the whales – he was too busy trying to save Earthcore from liquidation, despite his frequent boasts that he had created the country’s greatest, most enduring doof “brand”. He was fond of that word, and of his status as a quasi-historic figure. But the increasing size of the event, and its perceived compromises and commercialism, caused splintering. In 1997, a collective previously associated with Earthcore established the rival Rainbow Serpent Festival.

The great myth, according to Pip Darvall, was that Earthcore made a lot of money. “We never did. When I was involved we made a basic wage, if we were lucky, and everybody worked other jobs. But of course people saw these amazing events, saw the huge profile, and thought, These guys are rolling in it. And that’s also part of the show – people want to be involved in something successful, they don’t want to be a part of a failure.”

In 2002, Earthcore Events Pty Ltd dissolved, only to rise again in the form of Good Trix. Then, in 2004, two men went missing from the party – still known as Earthcore – held that year in Shepparton. One was later discovered wandering a remote track, dehydrated. But days later the body of the other man, Stephen Henshall, was found on the banks of the Goulburn River.

Boursinos enjoyed being the face of Earthcore, but it was Darvall who represented the organisation at the coronial inquest. “It was tragic,” he says. “The really difficult part is that someone died. Someone’s son died. It was a very traumatic experience for anyone involved. I was the witness for Earthcore, and spent three days in the coroners court being questioned. Afterwards I spoke to his family to express my sorrow. Our lawyers told me not to, but I did. How could you not?”

Darvall left Earthcore not long after. He tells me it had nothing to do with the drowning, and that he left on good terms with Boursinos. Darvall was now a young father, which overtook his life as a party organiser. A geologist, today he’s the managing director of a small mining exploration company.

The year 2008 was pivotal for Spiro Boursinos. Or it should have been, had he absorbed its lessons. Financially, Earthcore was bleeding out, and years of scurrilous behaviour had cost him much faith. The accusations were numerous: Boursinos would advertise acts before they’d committed, sometimes without their knowledge, as a way of strong-arming their involvement. Artists were underpaid, or not at all – the same went for labourers and security staff. Onsite volunteers complained about not having the cost of their tickets reimbursed, and punters complained about not receiving refunds after their favourite artists withdrew. There were serial complaints that the party sites were trashed, and multiple stories of masked men slashing the tyres of punters’ cars that were parked outside the paid zone. There were strong and persistent rumours that the festival was part-financed by drug money. Police believed the event was being used for money laundering by dealers.

Meanwhile, Boursinos resented commercial competition, and dismissed rival festivals as “Earthcore clones”. There was special acrimony between him and the Rainbow Serpent and Maitreya festivals, and for years there were mutual allegations of sabotage.

Then there were countless accusations of intimidation and verbal abuse. Many told me of Boursinos’s volatility – charming one moment, threatening the next. By many accounts, including his own unsubtle quips with the music press, Boursinos was hitting the gear hard. He was also becoming increasingly aggressive, erratic, impulsive. He had no tolerance for criticism. His tirades to staff were matched by his abuse of punters in social media forums. His language was toxic. In one post, he published photos of two ravers – a man and a woman. “Just look at the quality of the haters here and it’s no suprise [sic] they all share a common characteristic. Fat and ugly. Just look at this monstrosity as a perfect example … And this fat pedo looking freak.”

Peace, Love, Unity and Respect. A former Earthcore colleague described that period to me:

“It wasn’t pleasant working for him … I used to think that it was just the music industry and it was normal. But when I ran my own shows I realised that it wasn’t, and that there were better ways of executing these events. [He] didn’t have any sense of conscience about the impact [he] had on other people. If you saw or heard some of what was going on, a lot of things in relation to women, it would make you feel sick in the stomach. For a long time I felt I had to move on, but I was committed to the Earthcore brand. Eventually I realised my own health was suffering …

“He was physically violent in front of me to a woman, pushing her hard against the side of a van at Earthcore 2008 … She reported it to police. He said if I didn’t back him up, the event will be shut down, so I backed him up … I guess I feel guilty in that I was complicit in a sense, supporting Earthcore.”

In 2008 a photo of Boursinos – his face bloodied, bruised and swollen – was shared online by the doof community. Most thought he’d finally received rough justice from an angry debtor. It was a theory sometimes encouraged by Boursinos himself, who never minded inflating his reputation as a wild man, though in an unreleased interview from 2013 he said the injuries were the result of a car accident. A former colleague told me a different story: “The truth is, he actually fell out of a window while trying to escape his apartment, thinking people were after him. I know this because I drove him to hospital afterwards.”

Then there was the 2008 Earthcore itself. It needed to be bigger and wilder than ever, finances be damned. Boursinos was always chasing a dirty grandeur, a mix of respect and infamy, even if his pursuit of it burnt everyone close to him. But no respect would flow from the 2008 event. After being told their fees would be cut from the agreed rate, or failing to receive their deposit, more than half of the acts withdrew. The show went on, but if you wanted a refund you were out of luck.

That year’s festival was a catastrophe, and Boursinos lost the few financial backers he had left. He folded his second company, Good Trix, the one that had bought the debts of his first. Then came the big announcement: Earthcore was dead. “I swear to God there will never be an Earthcore Global Carnival or festival in Australia again,” he told The Age. “That’s it. I’m shutting it here, and that’s the end of an era. It’s exactly gone in the direction I wanted to take it. It’s grown to the size I wanted and became a brand name that virtually every Australian knows, and it’s pretty well known overseas too. I didn’t envisage it was going to become this big initially, but by about ’96 or ’97, I realised I’d created this freaky monster.”

For a couple of years, Boursinos roamed the wilderness. He spent countless hours playing online poker, surfing couches and nursing resentments. Not easily chastened, he dreamt of a comeback. Spiro the Phoenix. But his bitterness and irrationality were growing. His girlfriend became scared, and was frequently subject to long and abusive rants. She began secretly recording them. Later, she messaged a friend: “He isn’t well, I feel sorry for him. I love and care for him and will support him but I will no longer subject myself to his verbal abuse. Taping that stuff had been good because when I listen back in retrospect I see how shocking it is. I will be taking the voice recordings with me to a psychologist.”

Despite his behaviour, she also said that “he has an endearing side to him that is easy to love. In essence, he has a good heart but there is some psychology thing going on in his brain that causes him to flip out.”

In 2010, Boursinos began working under the name Solar Empire from an office above the Royal Melbourne Hotel’s bar, booking acts for the venue and consulting for other events. I have read emails sent by Boursinos during this period. They are written with a thuggish hauteur, as if Pacino’s Scarface had been transplanted to the world of music promotion – all machismo and ultimatums. In one, he demands that a colleague lie for him in order to conceal a romantic affair; in another he seems to hint at using blackmail.

That same year, a colleague emailed Boursinos requesting an apology for verbal abuse. It’s a long exchange, and ends with the colleague writing: “If you really want the truth from me as a friend, I think you should get a real job and learn some more work skills in different fields. You did nothing but play poker for two years to hide from the truth and one day decided ‘Oh I had my little sleep and now to get back into it.’”

Boursinos replies, in part: “[I] never intend on putting on a multi-day event outside a major city not now not ever.”

Yet in 2011, he registered another company: Yellow Sunshine Pty Ltd. Incredibly, Earthcore was coming back. And once again, it would enjoy the support of the music press.

Two years later, the year of Earthcore’s 20th anniversary, it returned. Sitting behind a desk, imperiously holding a cigarette, Boursinos explained his change of heart to Ryan McCurdy’s documentary crew: “I lied,” he shrugs. “That’s it. Just lied.”

In 2013, Boursinos placed an advertisement in the rural newspaper The Weekly Times, inviting Victorian farmers to lease their property to him for the event. He needed at least 500 hectares, a dam and plenty of trees. In Pyalong, a town of just 660 people 90 kilometres north of Melbourne, local farmer Brendan Kelly had what Boursinos was looking for.

“2013 didn’t go too bad,” Kelly says. “That was my first experience, of course. But as the years went on, I got more and more experienced. Knew what to look out for. The first was like a birthing. But I had to make sure the locals were getting paid who are doing a bit of work. Local sporting clubs and contractors were doing all right. There was a bit of money coming into the area. Digging trenches, you name it. Mum and dad stuff. But if he fucks off to Melbourne, and you’re left in a small town with people who hadn’t been paid, well, that’s no good. So I’d have to ring up Spiro, and tell him this bloke needed to be paid. It got harder each year. They preach at the start that they’ll pay the locals first, but then they’re packing down and fucking off while the local blokes are still looking for the money.”

By 2016, Kelly’s faith in Boursinos was dwindling – as was that of a few locals in Kelly. There were those who saw Earthcore as just a loud and druggy anarchy of little economic benefit.

“Spiro was high-strung and erratic at the start, but I didn’t see much of it initially,” Kelly says. “But second and third year, yeah, you witnessed it. Talking to people as if they were shit. He’d abuse people. Sends a bad vibe through the whole joint. Bad, bad, bad business and vibes. All bad. I persevered because the rest of us were doing all right.”

The day after Boursinos’s death, a curious obituary appeared on Facebook. In style, it reminded me of Hunter S. Thompson. In tone, it was unsentimental, and for the multitudes burnt by Boursinos, a counterpoint to the trade-paper hagiographies. The author had got to know Boursinos at 2016’s Earthcore. “To say his reputation proceeded [sic] him was an understatement, he was constructed of reputation and tenacity,” it reads, and continues:

In my eyes he was a reincarnation of Hoodini, an escape artist par excellence, and a high-octane dark magus whose bag of tricks included cocaine, promising to pay people, temper tantrums, but also dance floor alchemy. To say he started doofing feels silly. To claim that without him people wouldn’t otherwise connect ecstatically dancing to music in nature is like telling yourself at 12 that you invented wanking.

No funeral has ever deserved to have “I Did It My Way” played loud through a rig on some poor farmer’s property who has just realised he has bitten off more than he can chew when the check bounces.

I’ll remember him not through rosey rims that discount the darkness and boost the light, but in its entirety. I’ll remember the on-site waterboarding that was Earthcore as fuck, not in its political statement about imperialism but what it said about a party off its hinges, the embodiment of what happens when no-one is playing by the rules anymore, because he didn’t, and for that reason I tip my hat and pour out a big sip of my VB tinny at the Pyalong meat disco. There’ll never be another cooker like him, and that’s not a bad thing. RIP.

Waterboarding? I rang around, and sure enough others had heard the same thing. They described it like this: an Earthcore event featured four or five official stages, complemented by many unofficial ones – dusty campsites on the fringes, equipped with their own modest sound systems. It was here that you might buy, share and ingest pharmacology. Or where you might retire, recharge or, in 2016, enjoy a little waterboarding.

I was given a number for the author of the Facebook post, who I’ve agreed to refer to only by his first name.

“Mitch, did you witness this waterboarding yourself?”

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I did it myself.”

“You were waterboarded?”

“I partook for a LOL. It was purely voluntary. You could tap out. It was mainly for bragging rights, I guess. I was curious. There was a little bit of bravado, because they were timing how long people could last. I was on LSD at the time, and it was a little more traumatic than I expected. I just figured you could hold your breath, like you do under water, but you actually start breathing the water in – or you think you are. I lasted about 40 seconds.”

Never before had I spoken with someone for whom the question “How do I enhance my trip?” was answered with “Simulated drowning”. Mitch continued: “Spiro knew it was happening, but I doubt he requested it. But it was happening the whole weekend.”

That year, Mitch and a friend agreed to paint some shipping containers for Boursinos in exchange for a little cash and tickets. Mitch says Boursinos was cagey and petulant in negotiations, then outright intimidating when they asked for payment up-front. Aware of his reputation, they thought that any money promised was money lost. “Eventually he dropped another $1000, but only with an all-caps email threatening us that ‘If you don’t do the job immediately, my boys will come over and fuck you up.’ It was zero to a hundred. Uncalled for, over the top. We hadn’t even met yet. By the time we met on the dance floor, he was all happy and saying ‘It’s just business, boys’, and he was everyone’s best friend. But it was thinly veiled.”

It wasn’t the worst thing to happen at that year’s event. Around 1pm on Saturday, November 26, day three of the party, punter Arthur Hatzistavros went to check on his friend Robyn Deans who’d been sleeping in her tent. He got no answer, thought she was still napping, and left without entering. Two hours later, Hatzistavros tried again. This time he unzipped the entrance. Deans was on her stomach. “I pushed her a few times and felt a dead weight,” Hatzistavros later told the coroner. “I pulled her over and noticed her face was blue. I ran towards one of the crew people and told them to get an ambulance.”

Deans suffered epilepsy, a fact relayed to medics. One of them, paramedic Lawson Chan, later stated that, when they arrived, “I was a bit shocked by her presentation as I was originally told it was a seizure we were responding to. Her presentation was not normal and my shock was because it seemed she may have already passed.”

They confirmed her death at 4.46pm.

Boursinos panicked. He gathered his crew and told them a death had occurred, owing to an unspecified “medical condition”. That was the phrasing he insisted they use if anyone asked, and it filtered to the media. “I heard something [about a death] over our radio,” Brendan Kelly says. “I got no idea [how she died] … It was all about Spiro and his ego. He probably handled it wrongly. There was a lack of care or sensitivity. It was all about what it would do to him and his brand and festival. Could’ve been handled better, I’d say.”

Someone who knew Deans told me: “She was an old-school doofer. Rough, but really lovely … Earthcore – they just didn’t want to know. There was no memorial. No acknowledgment. No respect. A lot of people were very upset.”

I called Shannon Beveridge, a co-organiser of Earthcore and long-time friend of Boursinos. When I asked him to reflect upon how the event might have changed over the years, and whether different drugs created different atmospheres, he all but denied their presence at Earthcore. “A lot of people who went to Earthcore didn’t take drugs,” he said. “There’s a select few that do. But the last couple of years, we had drug sniffer dogs – nothing there. No one ever died at Earthcore from a drug overdose. No one.”

“What about Robyn Deans?” I asked.

“Robyn Deans died from a medical condition,” Beveridge says. “She didn’t have her pills with her.”

A “medical condition” – the same formulation I was told Boursinos had encouraged staff to use at the time of Deans’ death.

“How do you know, though?” I asked. “The coroner’s report was never made public.”

Beveridge paused. “My nanna used to babysit her. She wasn’t a drug taker.”

A few weeks after I spoke with Beveridge, the coroner’s report on Robyn Deans was released to me. The forensic pathologist attributed her death to a “multi­drug overdose” – specifically from ice, ketamine and cannabis. Deans’ epilepsy was not considered a contributing factor. The coroner used the phrase “multi-drug toxicity” to avoid the suggestion of suicide.

It was Brendan Kelly’s last Earthcore. The following year’s council application – which was late and inaccurately detailed – was rejected by the Mitchell Shire Council. “Even if Council did have authority to grant the request, it would be refused due to significant concerns about patron safety, illegal drug use, traffic management, security and noise that have not been addressed,” it stated.

But it would not be the last Earthcore – not quite. And it certainly wouldn’t be the last time Kelly heard from Boursinos.

Creditors were circling. Yellow Sunshine Pty Ltd was in trouble. Big trouble. Back in 2013, just two years after the company was founded, it owed many thousands to the Australian Taxation Office. From at least 2015 the company was suffering recurring losses. Later, forensic accountants would determine that Yellow Sunshine was likely insolvent in late 2016. It continued trading anyway.

Despite losing Pyalong and financial solvency, in 2017 Boursinos sought a dramatic expansion of Earthcore – parties were announced for Victoria, Western Australia, New South Wales and Queensland. Or perhaps the expansion was because of the trouble. Boursinos was an inveterate gambler, usually with other people’s money. He was always betting that today’s debts would be paid by tomorrow’s parties. Earthcore was a bubble that was punctured every few years, only to re-inflate itself with bluster, morphing ownerships and a compliant trade press.

Once again, something had to give. The 2017 Earthcore parties advertised 36 international artists, but the vast majority withdrew when they failed to receive either work visas, flights or payment. Tel Aviv duo Coming Soon were especially critical. On November 21, two days before their first Earthcore show, they announced their cancellation on Facebook from Singapore airport: “The reason … is because the owner of this festival didn’t pay us and didn’t even book a flight. After promising every week that he will send [payment] and after many [threats] of cancelling us if we will not be patient … we never got treated like that ever in our 15 years in the industry and we will never work with this promoter ever again!!”

Before this, Earthcore had explained the cancellation by saying the act had double-booked itself overseas. But after Coming Soon’s post, and after the snowballing withdrawal of acts, Boursinos published a statement saying the WA, NSW and Queensland events were cancelled, “due to a lack of ticket sales caused by a … smear campaign by international artist Coming Soon”.

This claim was made despite the fact that Coming Soon had only publicised their grievances days before the first event, and despite Earthcore’s website warning prospective punters weeks earlier that tickets were “down to the last few”. The spin was shameless. A lie would be published, then refuted, then deleted – only for another to replace it. To believe all the excuses was to believe that Boursinos was history’s unluckiest man – an innocent who somehow, every year, aroused the whole world’s destructive jealousies.

Three of the four events were cancelled, but with a skeletal line-up Victoria’s went ahead in its new location of Elmore, another tiny town, north-east of Bendigo. There were some positive words online. There were also some bleak ones: “Left because I didn’t feel safe … everywhere you walked you saw people losing their minds.” And: “Organisation was terrible … 36  artists pulled out, the ones people paid to see because the organiser hadn’t paid them. Juice heads were trying to fight each other, and people were littering left, right and centre … It makes me sick.”

Boursinos was enraged by the negative media coverage, and resumed patrolling the internet for criticism. There was plenty of it. In 2008, when Earthcore first collapsed, Facebook was relatively new, Twitter nascent, Instagram non-existent. But in 2017, each platform was now enthusiastically deployed against him.

Boursinos marshalled his own people to fight back. Suffice to say that if Earthcore critics weren’t threatened with assault or vexatious litigation, they were dismissed in the manner of an indignant schoolyard bully – as “losers with no lives”. When journalists reported on the shambolic finances, they were condemned as liars; when unpaid artists went public, they were slandered as drug addicts and attention seekers; when punters demanded refunds, they were brushed off as inconsequential “haters”.

But this was the least of it. One site became the special focus of Boursinos’s resentment – “Earthcore Memes”, an acerbic Facebook page dedicated to his mockery and exposure. And he became frighteningly obsessed with discovering who was behind it.

In August last year, Brendan Kelly received a phone call from a man calling himself Jason. He had a message from Spiro Boursinos: “You and me need to sort out some shit, I can tell you that, pal,” Jason said. Having already received harassing calls from Boursinos and his associates – two calls a minute for half an hour, sometimes – Kelly was prepared. He recorded the call. “I’ll be there to see you in the next few days,” Jason continued. “And I tell you what, you want to fucking stop starting shit with Spiro ’cause you got no idea the army the bloke’s got behind him … You’re on your own out there, you motherfucker. You’ve got no idea the trouble coming your way.”

“Out there” was Kelly’s farm. The “shit” was the Facebook page, “Earthcore Memes”. To judge by the blizzard of legal letters, harassing calls and online abuse I’ve seen, Kelly was just one target. He denied he was behind the page.

“Who am I talking to?” Kelly asked.

Jason wasn’t the sharpest goon. He had used his own, undisguised phone number – and his real name. Kelly reported the threat to police, and they didn’t have good news: Jason had priors for assault. “[The police] said if he turns up, ring triple-zero immediately – or do what you have to do,” Kelly says. “Well, I was ready for him. I thought, If he comes here, it’s 50/50.”

So Kelly waited.

Call me square or prematurely reactionary, but even aged 21 and dancing absurdly in a room filled with smoke, lasers and bass notes that threatened to vacate our bowels… even while enjoying a multitude of hugs, shoulder rubs and slurred avowals of love… even while my serotonin’s drawbridge was wedged open and my brain ecstatically broiled in the stuff – even then the utopian rave dogma gave me the shits.

This was the dawn of the new millennium, and eulogies for the rave were legion. Old-schoolers had long pronounced it dead, murdered by capitalism’s rapacious appropriations. What were once cheap, improvised and autonomous sites of liberty were now cash cows for The Man. So the old-timers wouldn’t have called what I went to “raves” but “festivals”, distinguished by their shameless commercialism.

But even if our parties were commercial, we still thought we were carrying the torch (or glowstick) by preferring love drugs to binge drinking and fists. Sure, we indulged in outlawed substances – but they were less harmful than the legal ones. And this was the bugle call of our hero, the late comic Bill Hicks, who made a posthumous cameo (via video footage) in the 1999 British rave-culture film Human Traffic: “I know this is not a very popular idea,” Hicks says, stalking the stage as John Simm’s character watches his video admiringly. “You don’t hear it too often anymore, but it’s the truth. I have taken drugs before, and… I had a real good time. Didn’t murder anybody, didn’t rob anybody, didn’t rape anybody, didn’t beat anybody, didn’t lose – hmmm – one fucking job. Laughed my ass off and went about my day. Sorry.”

The film was a favourite of ours. It was simple enough: five friends, stuck in tedious jobs and families of false rectitude, live purely for the ecstasy-fuelled weekend. And they really live for it – never are they so serious as when they’re plotting their fun. This dedication was briefly seductive to me. I was young, and my socialising had previously been limited to violent suburban pubs. To replace these rooms with ones where their occupants’ minds were bubbling in serotonin, well, you noticed the difference. And for a while I mistook that difference for enlightenment.

The older generation could lament their forsaken culture, but we thought we were honouring the code. Which as far as I could tell was just glorified decency and common sense: be courteous, don’t be sleazy, watch out for each other. This last point was emphasised: friend not feeling well? Take them outside. Been in the toilet too long? Check on them. Not enough water? Fill their bottle. It was a hedonist’s leave-no-one-behind policy, but the attentiveness couldn’t always survive the influence of the drugs it was meant to mitigate.

This code was well affirmed but so poorly fulfilled that I suspect it did less for ravers’ safety and more for their sense of superiority. On two tabs of acid and a shelved pill, the climactic rise of a techno set will claim more attention than your friend’s absence – they’re likely lost in their own witless reverie before the drum-and-bass stage.

My favourite story of failed duty comes second-hand. Upon hearing that a friend, half-mad on acid, had run screaming into the bush, a doctor, enjoying a far more sanguine response to the same acid, raised a dismissive hand and said: “He’ll be fine.” He was – but only after medics had rescued him from the wilderness and quelled his rages with a shot of adrenaline to his arse.

We weren’t chasing some mystic regression. We were just harmless hedonists eager to believe that our pleasure signified some lofty defiance. In my social orbit, the lifestyle’s chief proselytiser was the strange son of an architect renowned for plunging heroic quantities of ecstasy up his ring. Only once his magic beans had secreted their sacred properties could he rhapsodise about the paradise we were all supposedly building – only then, because for the rest of the week he was condemned to bed, suffering the mute ravages of his comedown. You might float to heaven when the tide is in, but when the dopamine recedes you can find yourself on a rough and putrid shore.

There are worse things, I suppose. Like Hicks, I had a good time. But I was bored by those whose tongues needed drugs to be interesting, and I couldn’t understand why the enjoyment of nature obliged its desecration, or why a feeling of fellowship required pills and a Native American headdress. A community with pretensions to Utopia, and for which party drugs are its greatest sacrament, is geared to entropy.

Brendan Kelly was still waiting for Jason. Playing out scenarios in his head. Days had passed now.

“He rang on Thursday, and now it’s Sunday, and I thought, Where is this dickhead? When’s he coming?” Kelly says. “So I called him. And suddenly his voice was different. Confused. He was probably a drug mate of Spiro’s, and he was just sitting around sampling. He never answered his phone after that.”

Nor did Jason answer it for me.

On Kelly’s property there remain artefacts of the parties. The largest are shipping containers, and an old bus that served as the party office. “I looked into pursuing Spiro to get him to take his shit away, but he was so dodgy, changing companies and all this, that it was too fucking hard,” Kelly says. “All he’s got is a mobile phone, a laptop and half a pack of smokes. He didn’t have anything he could send you. By then he was slandering me online. Calling me a wife-basher. That’s another tactic, hoping people abort the mission. It works on a lot of people.”

Last year, ex-colleagues of Boursinos and other aggrieved parties created a private online chat group, to share stories with each other and a journalist (not me, though I was later given access). A friend of Boursinos infiltrated the group, and the names of its members were made public. “Here are the targets,” a Facebook post read. “If you are on this list you are in ALOT [sic] of trouble both sides of the law.”

In the months before his death, social media posts show Boursinos asking for the home address of one of the chat group’s members. To encourage people to disclose the information, he declared that the person was plotting to kill him. Boursinos never learnt the address, but what he did get was the “target’s” phone number – and their mother’s. He called several times a day. “It was classic,” the targeted person says. “He did this to dozens of people over the years, including ringing people’s workplaces and families.” Some of these calls were recorded. In one call to the person’s mother, Boursinos says: “Enjoy the infamy.”

One target went to police. “I was fearing for my life,” they told me. “I wasn’t sleeping. The police took it pretty seriously, but they told me he was good at being threatening without being illegal. When I heard of his death there was shock, disbelief, but also a weird sense of prophecy. My best friend heard pretty fast from a DJ and they rang me to tell me it was real as they knew it would be hard for me to accept. And then of course, immediately the conspiracy theories started – that he was faking his own death.”

You might think it strange that this person thought faked-death theories were inevitable. I would have thought so too, before I entered this weird twilight. One of Boursinos’s former colleagues told me that once he’d finally distanced himself after many years, Boursinos called and threatened to kill him. For a long time after, he slept with a machete beside his bed.

In April 2018, the forensic accountancy firm Ferrier Hodgson finished its preliminary report into Yellow Sunshine on behalf of creditors. “It would appear that the Company failed principally for the following reasons,” the report says. “Poor financial control including lack of records; poor strategic management of the business; inadequate cash flow or high cash use; and trading losses.”

There were two bank accounts visibly associated with the company, one of which contained $0.84 and the other overdrawn by almost $88,000. Collectively, more than 80 creditors were owed almost $700,000. This included the ATO, which was owed at least $43,000, “but this amount may be greater due to unreported and unpaid taxation liabilities”. National Australia Bank was owed $90,000, after it had refunded that amount to punters who had successfully disputed their purchase of Earthcore tickets. These were the principal creditors, but there were at least 70 others owed $10,000 or less – many of them Pyalong locals.

It gets worse. Ferrier Hodgson concluded that Yellow Sunshine had likely traded while insolvent, and in their final report in March this year would say that it was for longer than they first realised. “Furthermore, the Director provided … two computers owned by the Company,” the report says. “[One] of the computers was missing a hard drive, whilst the other computer’s hard drive appears to have been wiped. A forensic IT specialist has confirmed that no electronic data could be recovered from the second hard drive.”

Just after 2am on October 20, 2018, police arrived at Melbourne’s Antique Bar and found a man thrashing beneath the weight of several others. Chairs and tables were toppled; a smashed bottle lay on the floor. Staff and patrons made way for the officers, who pulled Boursinos up and applied handcuffs. He quickly lost consciousness.

In the years before his death, Boursinos had complained of a heart literally weakened by the malice of critics. Many who knew him thought cocaine a more obvious culprit.

Police tried to revive him, then paramedics. But they couldn’t save him. The Godfather of Doof was dead. “They let him die like a dog on the floor,” his mother told The Age.

Within 48 hours, the autopsy was complete. It has not been made public, and a coronial inquest – where the report might be made available as an exhibit – is still pending at time of writing. “Basically, [Earthcore is] my life’s work,” Boursinos told filmmaker Ryan McCurdy in 2013. “Initially, it was baby steps. But now I’m just running with it, like an animal. Hurtling towards the cliff, yelling out Sparta!” This was bravado, but he didn’t seem to realise how close to the cliff’s edge he’d come.

Even in death, there was damage. A family had lost a son and brother; one of the men who had wrestled him at the bar fell into a depression and struggled to leave his house. Almost a year after his death, one of his former friends – the one who kept a machete beside his bed – was still bitterly haunted. “I’m still fucked up by it all,” he told me. “I don’t listen to the music anymore. I’m in a dark place.”

Then came the public tributes. How can I characterise them? As sweet, obliging, convenient? They were all of these things, and more, but no tribute mentioned the chief irony: that driving this “vehicle par excellence” for Peace, Love, Unity and Respect was a violent swindler.

“Attract as much attention to your brand as you can,” Boursinos told McCurdy. “Like Richard Branson does. In a masochistic way, I guess I encourage it. If you’ve got attention or vibrations around you, you get more attention to your end result and your brand. Some things [that are said] are hurtful, but at the end of the day it’s just words. I’m not going to go to the grave one day saying ‘so-and-so called me an idiot’. Whatevs, you know?”

Then Boursinos reflected upon his legacy: “‘He might be a controversial arsehole, but God he puts on a good show’: That’s all I want people to think of me.”

Like many others, farmer Brendan Kelly couldn’t quite believe the news of Boursinos’s death. “His family were on the [Facebook] hate page calling them murderers, saying, ‘I hope you’re happy.’ But I’d had another three or four calls that morning, so I thought he was still alive. Still harassing me … Then to hear he’s dead, gone, it was a fucking great relief. Great weight off my shoulders.

“He was a raging tyrant in the end. Highly erratic, a fucking horrible person.”

If Earthcore was a vehicle, it was a car with failed brakes screaming downhill – with a man behind the wheel insisting that he was in control, and threatening to run down anyone who dared say that he wasn’t. For years, that car crashed through the “timeless land of perfect and total joy” before, finally, its long joyride ended in flames. Perhaps more interesting than the driver, though, were the passengers who believed him.

Over the years, many who worked with Boursinos experienced doubt, remorse or hiccups of conscience. But little changed. Why not?

 Some were intimidated. Some were dependent. Some shrugged and accepted Boursinos as an unyielding phenomenon, to be endured like bad weather. Some bought the myth and excused his behaviour as the cost of talent. Some saw only a fraction of the disorder and conveniently failed to see the rest. Meanwhile, the trade press recycled media releases, gave fawning interviews, and became a credulous amplifier for bullshit.

Boursinos also exploited the loyalty of insecure men who were enthralled by his apparent charm and purpose. It took some of them years to escape their emotional captivity; more than one described Earthcore as a cult organised around one man’s personality.

At the very start of our conversation, before he spoke so passionately for Boursinos, Earthcore co-organiser Shannon Beveridge said something that stayed with me. I had asked him how they’d met. “I think it was Earthcore, sometime in 2005 or 2006,” he said. “Sometimes I regret it.”

Sometimes I regret it. It strangely coloured the long and passionate defence that followed.

“He’s an eccentric person. Full of life. A visionary, to the point of… what’s the word? He was awe-inspiring, in a sense. We thought he was immortal. I thought he’d be around forever. Everything was from his own brain. Sometimes that gets too much, but he had a lot of good sides. He was a very decent human being. The problem was that he was very full on, and some people didn’t know how to take that. But people respected him because of his legacy. At the funeral, there were a lot of people from the music industry there. This is why I was mates with him for so long. I was inspired by him. He wouldn’t let go of anything.”

I’d heard this a lot. “He would never give up – even when he should have,” Pip Darvall told me.

Unleash and regret it later.

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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